CP24 - Toronto News | Breaking News Headlines | Weather, Traffic, Sports
Dhalla: slave-driver or victim?
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, May 12, 2009 8:57PM EDT
OTTAWA - A ruthless slave driver or victim of a smear campaign?
A parliamentary committee heard radically different characterizations Tuesday of Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla amid allegations she mistreated two caregivers hired to look after her mother and flaunted labour laws.
The sobbing women cast Dhalla as a hard-hearted taskmaster who forced them to turn over their passports and made them work long hours at menial chores.
But Dhalla promptly fired back, depicting herself as the victim of a smear campaign and insinuating that the women may have been coached by Conservatives in exchange for guarantees of permanent residency.
The women both said it was Dhalla -- not her brother, as she has claimed -- who interviewed them, hired them and supervised much of their work beginning in February 2008.
"I was mentally tortured and physically stressed," Magdalene Gordo told the House of Commons immigration committee, via video link from Toronto.
"(You're) working from 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. ... You're being insulted. They show that you're really a slave. They do not show you love and compassion."
Gordo said Dhalla insisted several times that she surrender her passport and once called from her constituency office to demand it.
"I told her that I had left it in my apartment. Ruby angrily shot back with an order: `If you don't give your passport then I will never sponsor you.'
"From this day on, I became concerned and terribly worried about my situation working for Dr. Ruby Dhalla without the proper documentation."
The emotional testimony flew in the face of Dhalla's statements that she had nothing to do with the women's employment and was rarely at the Mississauga, Ont., house when they worked.
Armed with a stack of documents, the Liberal MP vehemently denied the more sensational charges and cited several discrepancies in the women's testimony.
"I, Ruby Dhalla, did not employ Magdalene Gordo or Richelyn Tongson," she testified, her lawyer at her side.
"I, Ruby Dhalla, did not sponsor Magdalene or Richelyn.
"I don't know what their motive is, but I do want to tell all of you today that I have nothing to hide and I have done nothing wrong."
In a voice shaking with indignation, she denied a litany of claims from the women.
She insisted she did not yell at them, demand their passports, make them tidy up her cousin's house, shovel snow, clean her brother's chiropractor clinic, or threaten to scrap their immigration applications unless they turned over all their personal documents.
Tongson sobbed uncontrollably as she described how she wanted to remain in Canada, where she could support her four children. She said Dhalla forced her to hand over all her personal documents -- such as her passport, birth certificate, and marriage licence.
Dhalla insisted the hiring and management of the women was her brother's responsibility. But Gordo said the only time she had any interaction with the brother was when he showed her how to shine his shoes and prepare his suits.
Dhalla hinted that the Conservative government might have played a role in a smear-job conducted against her. She noted that Immigration Minister Jason Kenney had recently been seen at a political event with her local riding opponent.
"I really hope that my name and that my family's name is not being utilized in any way, shape or form, to gain permanent residency."
Standing right behind Dhalla, an aide to Kenney worked his way through the committee room, handing out documents to reporters that included photocopies of the federal caregivers' application.
One portion of the contract was marked: "Is this Ruby Dhalla's handwriting?"
Dhalla was asked that same question during Tuesday's hearing and she said her handwriting was not on the document.
David Babb, a forensic document examiner, offered guarded support for Dhalla's claim after inspecting the document.
He told The Canadian Press that the handwriting sample could have been produced by the same person who identified himself as Neil Dhalla, Ruby's brother, on another part of the form.
Dhalla also handed over a series of documents which she said support her version of the facts. She said the documents include:
-- A statement from a snow-removal contractor who said he had always shovelled the snow at the Dhalla home, not the caregivers.
-- A signed receipt from Gordo saying she was paid. Gordo told the committee Dhalla dragged out paying her, and refused more than once to do so before finally agreeing.
-- A statement from a company that says it cleans Neil Dhalla's chiropractor clinic, a task the caregivers said they were asked to perform.
-- Documents indicating that Gordo was only employed for 11 days. Gordo claimed her passport had been withheld from her for two weeks.
-- Airplane boarding passes that, Dhalla says, prove she was only home in Toronto for three of the 11 days for while Gordo was employed at the residence.
It took plenty of prompting to get Dhalla to even admit living in the house with her mother.
She lives there from Thursday to Sunday when Parliament is sitting, and full time during the recess months. But Dhalla tiptoed around the subject when asked whether she lived there.
After some pressing Dhalla answered: "Yes, I visit the home."
She was asked again whether it was her official place of residence and finally replied: "Yes, it is."
Dhalla professed involvement in only one pertinent area. She said she placed the initial call to the agency that provided the caregivers' names, but that all subsequent dealings with the agency came from her mother and brother.
She also scoffed at the notion that the women lived in misery at the Dhalla residence.
She said her mother sometimes cooked for them, even though they were hired to care for her, and that they would sit on the couch together watching television.
Dhalla said the women also lived comfortably in a 1,500-square-foot basement apartment, with a full kitchen, elegant carpeting, and a 60-inch flat screen TV.
Kenney's office said none of its employees were in contact with the caregivers.